A new study shows that waking up and anticipating stressful things can actually impact your memory and cognitive function throughout the rest of the day.
Researchers at Pennsylvania State University found that when participants woke up feeling like the day ahead would be stressful, their working memory—which helps people learn and retain information, even when distracted—was lower throughout the day. According to the study, which was published in the Journals of Gerontology, anticipating something stressful has a great effect on working memory—regardless of whether the stressful events come to occur or not!
“Humans can think about and anticipate things before they happen, which can help us prepare for and even prevent certain events,” explained lead researcher Jinshil Hyun. “But this study suggests that this ability can also be harmful to your daily memory function, independent of whether the stressful events actually happen or not.”
The scientists recruited 240 diverse adults from different backgrounds to take part in the study. For two weeks, the participants responded seven times a day to questions prompted from an application on their phones: Once in the morning about whether they expected their day to be stressful, five times throughout the day about current stress levels, and once at night about whether they expected the following day to be stressful. The participants were also asked to complete a task that tested their working memory five times per day.
The study found that the anticipation of stress in the morning was linked to poorer working memory later in the day. However, they also noticed that stress anticipation from the previous evening did not have an effect on memory and information retention.
The results pose a significant problem because a reduced working memory means the ability to hold and manipulate information in mind, over brief intervals, is diminished. When memory is impaired, you are more likely to make a mistake at work, or less able to focus on the tasks at hand.
So in a sense, stressing out early in the morning is a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Anticipating pressures to come, before they even come, can actually exacerbate later troubles (giving you more to worry about).
The links found in the study show the importance of a person’s mindset first thing in the morning, before anything stressful has even happened yet in the day. This gives the findings important real-life applications: If you sense yourself growing anxious at the beginning of the day, take the time to relax. Meditate, read a book, listen to music. It’s worth it, and you’ll perform better throughout the rest of the day.